When Karuppiah Sellathurai bought his first cow, it only gave him a few liters of milk every day. But then he “multiplied” his cattle when his cow had a calf. Several years down the line, he has four animals in his shed, milk to meet his family’s needs and more than enough left over to sell.
The income is a welcome addition to the salary he earns from working in the tea estates of Hatton—the estate sector in Sri Lanka refers to large plantations growing tea, rubber or coconut that were established during the British colonial period.
Sellathurai uses the small rectangle of land behind his home to grow flowers and vegetables. Some of the latter find their way on to the family table, supplementing the family’s diet in a region where malnutrition remains distressingly common. Sellathurai’s son K. Vinodh makes a living as a taxi driver, but says his real ambition is to build on his father’s achievements. “We want to have a mini-farm,” Vinodh says.
The Sellathurai family is what experts would consider ‘positive deviants.’ The term is used to describe certain individuals or families in a community whose uncommon but successful behaviors enable them to find better solutions to a problem compared to their peers.
Though they may experience the same constraints as their neighbors, positive deviants do something different. For example, local traditions may recommend a child sick with diarrhea should not be fed. However, a positive deviant mother may go against this advice to keep her child nourished and hydrated, thereby ensuring his wellbeing.
In the case of the Sellathurai family, what makes them positive deviants is not just that they have their own home garden but that they actually incorporate its bounty into their diets.